Livelihoods and employment: The impact of COVID-19 on the economic situation of minority and indigenous workers

Rasha Al Saba and Samrawit Gougsa

Amid a global recession triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, minorities and indigenous peoples have been hit especially hard in the world of work. Not only have members of these communities lost their sources of income, they have also been left vulnerable to work in unsafe and exploitative conditions.

This chapter explores the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on the livelihoods and incomes of minorities and indigenous peoples as the crisis has unfolded. In particular, it examines the limitations of the policies put in place by different governments to protect workers and their rights, the continued pattern of exploitation and abuses that minority and indigenous communities face in the labour market, and the way these issues overlap with deeper patterns of discrimination that pre-date the pandemic itself.[1]

Loss of jobs, income and livelihoods

Besides the direct effects on public health, a major consequence of the pandemic has been unemployment, with the International Labour Organization (ILO) reporting that 8.8 per cent of global working hours were lost in 2020 alone, equivalent to 255 million full-time jobs, resulting in an estimated US$3.7 trillion in lost income. While many jobs in the formal sector were protected through government schemes, the informal sector – where the majority (61 per cent) of the world’s workforce are engaged and where minorities and indigenous peoples are overwhelmingly represented – has been much worse affected. The very nature of the informal economy means workers do not have secure employment contracts, access to labour protections or social protection through their employment, leaving them more vulnerable to exploitation and financial instability. Moreover, the gendered nature of this should be noted, as over 90 per cent of women in low-income countries are employed informally, leading to an even more profound impact on them.

Migrant workers on the margins of the global economy

Migrant workers across the world are often employed informally and have been severely affected by COVID-19. Not only have many lost their jobs, but some have even been physically abandoned by their employers to fend for themselves. In Lebanon, for example, where the economy was already in crisis even before the pandemic, scores of predominantly Ethiopian migrant domestic workers were fired and left on the street outside their country’s consulate in the capital city, Beirut. Most of the women had little or no money and relied heavily on the support of non-government organizations (NGOs) as they waited to be repatriated.

The COVID-19 pandemic also placed a spotlight on the vital contributions of migrant workers in the agricultural sector in maintaining food supplies locally and internationally. Countries that rely heavily on foreign workers in this sector saw significant labour shortages, not necessarily due to COVID-19 itself, but instead the measures put in place by governments to restrict the spread of the virus, particularly travel and containment rules. For example, in Canada, every year farmers rely on an estimated 60,000 foreign workers, mainly from Mexico, Guatemala and Jamaica, to harvest their crops. In the early months of the pandemic, however, Ontario was the epicentre of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak, where more than 1,000 migrant farm workers tested positive. As a result, many employers enforced strict rules, in particular on the foreign workers, whose visas are attached to the farmers they work for, resulting in a power imbalance where workers could easily be sent back to their home countries. Indeed, many were dismissed after accusations by employers of not following their imposed restrictions.

Migrant workers in India, most of whom are from Dalit and Adivasi backgrounds, also faced difficulties. Following lockdown, tens of millions of migrant workers lost their work in urban areas and were forced to return home, often to rural villages, without any clear means of survival. Yet the situation facing Dalits and Adivasis in South Asia expands beyond India. In Nepal, for example, a survey by the Samata Foundation of 1,500 Dalit respondents found that over 80 per cent reported financial distress due to COVID-19 and the restrictions introduced to contain its spread, with 45 per cent having lost their jobs in the wake of the pandemic. The fact that the large majority of Dalits are daily wage workers makes them especially vulnerable to the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic, leaving them struggling to make ends meet. The impact of unemployment and reduced incomes on migrant workers is also felt by family members in their home regions who rely on remittances – a particularly significant issue in South Asia, where a major share of global remittances are channelled by migrant workers elsewhere in Asia, the Middle East, Europe and North America.

The pandemic has also heavily affected global garment supply chains, where minorities and indigenous peoples are often employed, as demand for clothing and apparel dramatically reduced. Many retailers were quick to cancel or postpone production orders which, in many cases, had already been fulfilled ahead of delivery. For example, according to the Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, by April 2020 more than 1 million Bangladeshi garment workers had been sent home without pay or lost their jobs after Western clothing brands such as Primark and Matalan cancelled or suspended £2.4 billion of existing orders in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In many cases, the companies refused to pay for clothing that manufacturers had already produced, resulting in the closure of thousands of factories and millions of garment factory workers being left jobless, often without wages owed or severance pay. This exemplifies a clear power imbalance in the fashion and garment industry, whereby the upfront investment of labour is placed on workers in poorer economies who also take on the greatest burden of financial loss and risk. Moreover, such incidents are having a significant impact on the nutritional status of garment workers, as noted by a November 2020 global survey by the Worker Rights Consortium of garment workers in nine countries: 80 per cent of respondents with children reported that they were having to go hungry to feed their children.

In Nepal, a survey by the Samata Foundation of 1,500 Dalit respondents found that over 80 per cent were financially distressed due to COVID-19.

Indigenous livelihoods threatened as tourism slides

Like migrant workers, indigenous peoples are also disproportionately represented in the informal economy. As they often work in sectors heavily hit by the pandemic, particularly as a result of government measures to prevent the spread of the virus, they have experienced a severe impact on their livelihoods and traditional economies. One area that has been especially hard hit is the tourism sector as a result of lockdowns and travel restrictions. While at its worst the sector has been associated with exploitation and environmental degradation, it can also be a vital source of income and employment for many indigenous communities.

For example, due to the intimate knowledge of the land on which they have lived for centuries, the Khomani San of the Kalahari in South Africa offer hunting packages on their land around the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park on a commercial basis, to make a living. However, once lockdowns were enforced and tourism ceased, demand for their services drastically diminished, in turn reducing their income and leaving the community facing starvation. Moreover, as is often the case with hunter-gatherer communities who have been dispossessed of their ancestral lands, some were charged with poaching when they entered the park to hunt for food for survival during lockdown.

Similarly, in Colombia and Venezuela, women from the Wayuu community of Alta Guajira depended heavily on tourism for their income. According to a report by the Continental Network of Indigenous Women of the Americas (CNIWA) published in May 2020, the shrinking tourism industry led to approximately 50 children facing a critical state of malnutrition due to lack of food and water. This example highlights the severe impact that income losses for women can have on indigenous communities more widely.

Yet in some cases indigenous businesses have proved to be more resilient to the economic shock posed by the disruption in tourism. In the United States (US), for example, a survey conducted by the Native Hawaiian Chambers of Commerce and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs found that only 25 per cent of Native Hawaiian businesses reported their business to be over 50 per cent dependent on the tourism sector. In comparison, an estimated 47 per cent of non-Hawaiian businesses reported their revenue to be over 50 per cent dependent on the industry. The findings suggest that although Native Hawaiian businesses were also affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, they will play a crucial role in the economic recovery of the island.

Though tourism is an important source of income for minority and indigenous communities, the disruptions to the sector caused by COVID-19 highlight the precarity of depending on this form of income generation. The Pacific Islands, for example, successfully managed to keep the number of COVID-19 infections low during the first year of the pandemic but have been unable to escape economic hardship due to the decrease in tourism. Unlike their neighbours, Australia and New Zealand, the smaller Pacific Island countries often rely on aid and remittances and are not in a position to roll out robust stimulus packages. One key lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is to consider how to remedy this dependence on tourism for minority and indigenous communities across the world, so that their income is more resilient to such shocks.

Exploitation and forced labour

Exploitation and forced labour – defined by the ILO Forced Labour Convention (1930) (No. 29) as ‘all work or service which is exacted from any person under the threat of a penalty and for which the person has not offered himself or herself voluntarily’ – thrive on desperation and inequality, leaving minorities and indigenous peoples especially susceptible. While forced labour existed long before the pandemic, the rise in global unemployment since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has created an enabling environment for further abuses.

The use of forced Uyghur labour in PPE supply chains

Some sectors have seen a boom of business and supply that has matched an increasing trend of exploitation of workers belonging to minorities and indigenous communities. A clear example of this is the immense global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), such as N95 face masks and medical gloves, with values increasing more than tenfold by early April 2020, according to the Society for Healthcare Organization Procurement Professionals. As various governments and businesses sought to produce PPE to match demand, reports began to emerge of abusive working conditions and human rights violations of minorities and indigenous peoples involved in the production of these goods. In China, for example, a New York Times investigation revealed that several companies were implicated in the exploitation of Uyghurs, a persecuted and largely Muslim ethnic minority, to produce medical masks in conditions of forced labour. Though the forced labour was being used by companies, the companies have been operating through a government-sponsored programme that many claim forces people to work against their will.

Slavery-like conditions in the Gulf

The Gulf states host the majority of an estimated 23 million migrant workers living in the Arab states. Though they are some of the richest countries in the world, with economies highly dependent on foreign labour, systematic abuse and exploitation of migrant workers has been well documented. Most notoriously, many migrant workers are subject to the ‘kafala’ system, which gives employers immense power and control over the lives of those on their payroll. Workers typically require the permission of their employers to change jobs and are often reliant on them for food, accommodation and legal documentation. Violations of migrant workers’ rights in the region include a lack of adequate health care; inhumane living conditions, including lack of adequate food and housing; and visa deprivation and non-payment of wages – situations that are indications of modern slavery.

The pandemic has caused a sharp increase in the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers in the Gulf, with the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre documenting a 275 per cent increase in reported labour abuses against migrant workers in Gulf countries between April and August 2020 alone. In 95 per cent of incidents, the victims cited COVID-19 as a ‘key or worsening factor’, while the most frequently cited abuse (81 per cent of all cases) was non-payment of wages. For those affected, challenging employers to recover unpaid wages has been especially difficult due to the extensive repatriation programmes carried out, often forcibly, on foreign workers.

In Saudi Arabia, a report by Equidem revealed that thousands of low-wage migrant workers employed by subcontractors for Saudi Aramco, the oil and gas conglomerate, were left unpaid for as long as six months during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) too, thousands of construction workers employed on the Dubai Expo mega-project were dismissed without warning. Many of these workers, still owed unpaid wages, were returned to their home countries or forced to stay in poorly maintained accommodation.

Crowded together in unsanitary conditions and with limited access to health care, COVID-19 spread quickly among the Gulf’s migrant populations, triggering a wave of deportations and detentions, often in inhumane conditions. In Saudi Arabia, for example, Human Rights Watch reported in December 2020 that conditions in a deportation centre in Riyadh holding hundreds of mostly Ethiopian migrant workers were ‘so degrading that they amount to ill-treatment’. Detainees described unhygienic and overcrowded living conditions that made any kind of social distancing to prevent the spread of COVID-19 impossible; beatings were common, with at least three reports of deaths in detention.

In Qatar, meanwhile, some 2 million migrant workers make up about 95 per cent of the total labour force, sustained by the vast construction boom over the last decade ahead of the 2022 Fifa World Cup. Long before the pandemic, long working hours and limited labour protections were exacting a heavy toll on migrant workers: analysis published by The Guardian in February 2021 revealed that more than 6,500 migrants had died in the country since 2010, with little evidence of substantive investigations into the cause of many deaths. After hundreds of construction workers tested positive for COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, Qatari police sealed off the country’s largest labour camp, leaving thousands of workers trapped in unsanitary and overcrowded living conditions that contributed to the high levels of infection among migrants.

The predicament of foreign workers in the country was made worse by the Qatari government’s decision, early on in the pandemic, to prioritize the interests of businesses over the well-being of workers: a government directive effectively suspended even the limited protections in place by permitting companies that had halted their activities as a result of restrictions to put employees on unpaid leave or terminate their contracts.

Forced marriage on the rise as economic pressures bite

The start of the pandemic has also been matched by a sharp increase in cases of forced marriage across the world. For ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, particularly South Asians, the disruption of schools and education, coupled with sudden job loss, led more families to arrange for children to be married to ease the financial pressure of keeping them at home. The Zubin Foundation, which works to support marginalized ethnic minorities in Hong Kong, saw their helpline receive 1,438 calls during 2020, more than three times higher than the number of calls received the year before. A similar trend of increasing forced marriages has also emerged in Mauritania, where girls facing descent-based slavery are being pushed into marrying early as a means of economic survival amidst the pandemic.

In Qatar, some 2 million migrant workers make up about 95 per cent of the total labour force, sustained by the vast construction boom over the last decade ahead of the 2022 Fifa World Cup.

Unsafe working conditions

It is important to note that minorities and indigenous peoples across the globe are often over-represented in jobs that have been classified as ‘essential’ and ‘key’ during the pandemic. These are often those working on the frontline, such as doctors, nurses, cleaners, grocery shop staff, bus drivers and truck drivers, whose jobs cannot be conducted from home and require human interaction, thus leaving them more exposed to COVID-19. These workers are deemed necessary to the functioning of society during lockdowns and tough restrictions. Though they have always been essential to societies, cities and economies, the COVID-19 pandemic has underscored this reality. In the United Kingdom (UK), for example, the Office for National Statistics found that ethnic minorities, while comprising 11 per cent of the working population, made up one in five workers holding occupations with the highest potential exposure to COVID-19. In New York City in the US, meanwhile, people of colour make up three-quarters (75 per cent) of essential workers in the city.

The disproportionate representation of minorities in high-risk work in the US

While limiting the spread of COVID-19 in workplaces has been essential for the safe continuation of work, measures to ensure this have frequently been inadequate. This has been exemplified through the food production sector, particularly in Western countries. In the US, for example, many workers in the meat and poultry processing industry were infected with the virus. Ethnic minorities, particularly Black and Latino people and immigrants, are heavily represented in this sector. Even with the increased risk of infection, then President Donald Trump signed an executive order at the end of May 2020 requiring meat production plants to remain open. Trump’s order also offered additional measures to protect the industry from legal liability if more workers contracted the virus, while leaving workers vulnerable. Though companies began implementing fever checks and supplying surgical masks, many workers reported that physical distancing was not being implemented in factories, forcing them to continue working in crowded spaces.

The US’ largest online retailer, Amazon, also saw a sharp increase in demand for its products and delivery service from the start of the pandemic. With demand soaring, in the first weeks of the pandemic Amazon continued to operate at full capacity without implementing adequate protective measures, such as masks and social distancing, in its warehouses. With more than a quarter (26.5 per cent) of Amazon’s US workforce identifying as Black or African American in 2020, the large majority of whom are employed in its warehouses, Black workers were far more likely to be exposed to a higher risk of infection in the workplace.

Few protections for sanitation workers in South Asia

This increased risk of contracting the virus is a pressing concern for ethnic minorities and indigenous peoples, one that has not been adequately met nor addressed in many cases since the pandemic first emerged. For example, in India, jobs that Dalits and Adivasis have been forced to undertake for centuries – as cleaners, manual scavengers and waste pickers – have been considered essential services by the Indian government during the lockdown; yet the majority of these workers have not been given adequate PPE to protect themselves from contracting the virus. Similarly, in Pakistan, sanitation workers, who were deemed essential workers, mostly belong to religious minorities including Christians (who make up about 75 per cent of the workers) and Hindus. The work is poorly paid, considered low-status and high-risk in terms of potential COVID-19 infection, yet even when those doing it were recognized as essential workers they were not given adequate PPE to carry out their jobs. Moreover, most sanitation workers in South Asia come from a Dalit background, so the intersection of being a Dalit, poor and belonging to a religious minority means these workers are subjected to hate speech and exclusion on a daily basis – a situation even more acute for those who are also women.

Transport workers on the frontline

Though many countries saw travel restrictions imposed, transport staff on local, national and international routes have been essential workers throughout the pandemic. In many contexts, ethnic minorities make up a significant proportion of transport workers, and by being on the frontline – in many cases without PPE in the early weeks of the pandemic – they faced increased risk of contracting the virus. In the UK, for example, 30.5 per cent of Transport for London (TfL)’s workforce are ethnic minorities. In June 2020, TfL reported a concerning rise in spitting incidents against bus drivers during the pandemic, amounting to workplace violence and aggression, highlighting the types of risk faced by frontline workers. Moreover, the case of Belly Mujinga, a Black rail worker who died of COVID-19 after being spat at while on duty in March 2020, elucidates the risks facing frontline workers. In this case, a man told Mujinga that he was infected with COVID-19 before coughing and spitting at her. Whether racial discrimination was a factor in this case remains to be determined through an inquest into her death, which was announced in May 2021.

With over 90 per cent of global trade being moved by sea, some measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 implemented by states have severely impacted working conditions for maritime workers in the shipping sector. As a result of measures such as border closures, travel restrictions and grounded aircraft, it is estimated that between March and August 2020, only 25 per cent of normal crew changes took place. By June 2020, up to 200,000 seafarers were trapped on board ships, many of whom were serving on extended contracts. According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation, as a result some seafarers stayed onboard for more than a year, breaching the 11-month maximum set by international labour standards.

As emphasized by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), crew changes are essential because they ensure compliance with international maritime regulations to protect the crew’s safety, health and welfare. Over a quarter of the world’s seafarers come from the Philippines, leaving them severely exposed to the effects of the pandemic on the global shipping industry. In 2019 alone, more than 375,000 Filipinos were deployed as seafarers, working on both cargo and cruise ships, channelling an estimated US$6.14 billion in remittances back home – a major contribution to the economy. Therefore, not only did these extended periods of time trapped at sea breach their contracts, but they also left many seafarers, particularly in the Philippines, jobless, waiting to be deployed and concerned about their households’ financial insecurity.

Gaps in social protection and safety nets

Many governments have introduced measures to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic, either by developing new social protection schemes or expanding on existing ones. Many government interventions have focused on areas such as supporting businesses, employment retention, workplace safety and other measures to prevent social hardship. Other popular measures implemented by governments also include cash transfer, food aid and extension of social security schemes.

Throughout the current crisis, the narrative has focused on different countries’ approaches and their comparative success, rather than on the efficiency of these responses in addressing the burden on different groups within wider society. It is vital to acknowledge that exclusion and marginalization have long been associated with the welfare state, especially when examining the historic experiences of women, ethnic minorities, migrants and LGBTQ+ communities. However, the pandemic can also be an opportunity to realize social justice while protecting the most vulnerable. Therefore, assessing only the provision of these measures to minorities and indigenous peoples, and access to them, will not address the root causes of these inequalities. It is also crucial to take into account the inequitable access to housing, employment, food security and health care among minorities and indigenous peoples that pre-dated the pandemic and have contributed to the disproportionate impact on these communities.

This section focuses on the extent to which social protection measures associated with the pandemic have acknowledged the structural disadvantages that minorities and indigenous peoples face in their societies and economies: for example, over-representation in the informal economy, barriers to securing identification documents and limited access to the internet.

The question of eligibility

One factor in the effectiveness of social protection provision is the criteria determining eligibility for these benefits. One indicator of this is the extent to which informal employment is recognized and included, since people with disabilities, indigenous peoples, minorities and migrants are over-represented in this sector. While many of the job retention schemes have widely supported those working in the regulated economy, very few have covered workers in the informal economy. In many cases, enterprises and organizations are required to be registered in order to be eligible for wage subsidy. In addition, some countries only offered wage subsidies to specific sectors or enterprises, as was the case in Thailand, Botswana, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Many job retention schemes are found to exclude some members of minorities and indigenous peoples because of their failure to target workers in the informal economy. As a result, workers in the informal sector have been left vulnerable to destitution or exposed to unsafe and increasingly exploitative working conditions.

On the other hand, measures to mitigate economic hardship, such as cash transfers, social benefits and food aid, have been designed to target vulnerable populations and groups including informal workers, the self-employed, refugees, people living in rural areas and returned migrant workers. In addition to these targeted measures, there has been an attempt to include vulnerable groups in mainstream responses to the crisis through the relaxation of eligibility requirements to access benefits. Nevertheless, many governments have failed to target those most in need of support.

Ethnicity, citizenship and migration status have been widely used to shape eligibility for services even before the pandemic. Among the groups that have historically faced institutional discrimination in accessing social protection are stateless people and migrants, especially those who are undocumented. This discrimination has persisted throughout the pandemic. Some governments continued to exclude non-citizens from social security benefits, such as those of Iraq, Jordan and Spain. In South Africa, for example, while the stimulus package rolled out to provide social relief grants to unemployed workers during the pandemic was extended to include migrants and refugees, some 4 million undocumented migrants in the country were not eligible for this support. By contrast, among the most celebrated initiatives in promoting equality are those that extended unemployment benefits to include undocumented migrants, as in the case of California’s Disaster Relief Fund and Portugal’s regularization programme.

Domestic workers are another group who, having historically suffered from extremely limited social and labour protection, have again been excluded from social protection measures associated with the pandemic. Indigenous and migrant women are highly vulnerable to labour exploitation in the context of domestic work, especially in Asia and Latin America. In Latin America, domestic workers, especially those dependent on daily labour, have faced limited access to measures such as unemployment insurance, redundancy payments and sick leave. Although there have been some initiatives that identify and support domestic workers in Costa Rica and Argentina, where cash assistance was provided to this group, there is still a pressing need for this to be extended to address other immediate needs and protect domestic workers from slavery-like practices: for instance, through protections from wage theft and violence, and guaranteed access to public health information.

While extending eligibility to include vulnerable groups is welcome, on its own it is insufficient if the broader social and economic disadvantages they face are not also taken into account. Policy design should also address questions of sufficiency and sustainability. One indicator of this is whether welfare schemes provide adequate compensation or minimum thresholds to sustain a decent income for low-wage workers. This can readily be assessed in the case of cash transfer, since it is one of the most common measures used to target vulnerable groups: although governments have rolled out extensive cash transfer programmes in response to the pandemic, they have been widely regarded as inadequate, with countries such as Chile, Pakistan and South Africa providing packages below their national poverty lines. As a result, many members of minorities and indigenous peoples have faced increased pressure during the pandemic to work in unsafe and unprotected working conditions to secure their incomes.

Exclusion and lack of visibility

Even when members of minorities and indigenous peoples are eligible, that does not necessarily guarantee their access to services. Not only has financial and social assistance failed in some instances to reach many of the most vulnerable, it has also contributed to creating further inequalities within these groups. In many instances, governments rely exclusively on official registries to identify those targeted with assistance – an approach that often risks excluding undocumented migrants, residents of informal settlements and members of other communities on the margins of their societies.

In Bangladesh, for example, although the government has planned to widen the existing social safety net to cover low-income and marginalized groups, some minorities and indigenous peoples have received little support. According to a rapid assessment conducted by the Kapaeeng Foundation on the impact of COVID-19 on indigenous and tribal peoples in Bangladesh, only 2 per cent of the Rakhine community in Cox’s Bazar and 10 per cent of Maal Pahari received relief provided by the government. The same assessment showed that while some support was provided to minorities and indigenous peoples by NGOs, this was still not sufficient for them to meet their essential needs.

This failure to reach those most in need is clearly illustrated in the case of workers occupying what have historically been regarded as low-skilled jobs and those associated with inferior social status. This has shaped the experiences of many minorities and indigenous peoples who are disproportionately represented in cleaning, sanitation and domestic work in many parts of the world. A survey conducted by WaterAid found that, despite their vulnerability, sanitation workers in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan have limited access to the measures introduced in response to the pandemic. Only half of the respondents in Nepal and Pakistan were able to access the social security aid for vulnerable populations, while only 5 per cent of respondents in India benefited from a direct cash transfer that was distributed as part of the Covid-specific emergency support led by the national government. These examples reflect the shortcomings of depending on pre-existing registries rather than crafting a universal response for distributing emergency assistance, given that the most marginalized communities are also the most likely to be left out.

One common precondition for being officially registered is the acquisition of identification documents, a situation that has often been instrumentalized to discriminate against minorities and indigenous peoples, even – in some cases – effectively criminalizing their presence in their country. In most countries, too, identification documents have been a prerequisite for accessing benefits during the pandemic. For example, in Thailand, while migrant workers are entitled to unemployment benefits in theory, in practice their access is limited as they must have a national ID number, a Thai bank account and supply other personal information, which many lack. Other barriers, such as limited access to the internet, can also prevent minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants from accessing benefits.

In South Africa, while social relief grants for the unemployed were extended to migrants and refugees, 4 million undocumented migrants were not eligible.

Other institutional barriers

Discrimination is not only tied to the divide between citizens and non-citizens but can also penalize minorities and indigenous peoples in their home countries. This can be illustrated in some of the experiences of domestic workers in Nepal, most of whom are women. Although the government has distributed food through local authorities during lockdown, some domestic workers were excluded as the municipality was only listing households in the locality, while most of the domestic workers do not own houses or are not locals from the community. This example underscores the multiple levels of discrimination that minority, indigenous and migrant women have faced throughout the pandemic.

Another factor influencing access to services among minorities and indigenous peoples is communication. The availability of accurate information has been at the centre of the fight against the pandemic, not only in public health discourse but also in relation to accessing social protection. Although there have been increasing efforts to employ minority and indigenous languages, especially in public health messaging, information on social protection measures has not always been communicated effectively. In some cases, communities have been formally included in welfare programmes, but have been largely unaware of these benefits because of poor communication. This reflects long-standing discrimination in accessing welfare, resulting in a lack of trust and inadequate support to marginalized groups.

This has been demonstrated in Kenya, for example, where a survey conducted in July and August 2020 by OHCHR and the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders showed that while the large majority (90 per cent) of indigenous respondents acknowledged receiving information on COVID-19 preventive measures, less than a third (31 per cent) had received information regarding economic assistance packages. Furthermore, in India, according to a survey among migrant workers in the construction sector published by the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery in August 2020, of those who reported not having received any form of assistance during the pandemic, 58 per cent were unaware of the welfare schemes and benefits they were entitled to receive, while a further 27 per cent were unable to secure benefits despite having the necessary documents.


In order to address inequalities in responding to the pandemic, the deeper structural barriers affecting minorities, indigenous peoples and migrants must be overcome by granting universal access to COVID-19-related social benefits, without caveats or exceptions on the basis of citizenship or other official documentation. It is also imperative to address the misinformation associated with the pandemic in general by providing accessible channels of communication with clear guidance on benefits and measures available for workers and individuals to protect themselves.

The pandemic has highlighted long-standing protection gaps for millions of marginalized workers, forcing some governments belatedly to implement stronger rights and regulations to prevent abuses such as arbitrary dismissal or wage theft. The current crisis is an opportunity to dismantle structural inequalities and reconfigure societies towards more inclusive, rights-based labour models. This means recognizing the complexities and the multiple forms of discrimination that minorities and indigenous peoples face in the world of work and how these, in turn, intersect with gender, socio-economic status and disability. An essential first step in realizing this vision, however, is ensuring that members of marginalized communities are themselves allowed to contribute to the decisions affecting their livelihoods.

In this spirit, anti-discrimination efforts should centre on minorities and indigenous peoples as subjects and recognize their agency in driving change. One promising example of community engagement comes from New Zealand, where the government provided funding for a Māori business needs assessment with additional funding to allow Te Arawhiti (the Office for Māori Crown Relations) to work with iwi (Māori social units) to develop their own community responses to the pandemic. The pandemic has also witnessed many acts of solidarity, where communities have organized to cross lines of class, race, ethnicity and religion, as illustrated by the proliferation of mutual aid groups in many parts of the world. In the UK, for example, mutual aid groups have not only provided valuable support to elderly people, people with disabilities and other groups, but have also played an active role in campaigning for workers’ rights, especially workers in non-standard jobs and those excluded from government support. Many of these networks can be strengthened and used for different community mobilization and outreach projects. These structures can be useful, for example, in the efforts to support COVID-19 vaccine uptake and improve communication around vaccination campaigns.

Many members of minority and indigenous communities were already economically disadvantaged prior to the emergence of COVID-19, but the pandemic and the resultant economic crisis have exacerbated these inequities. Many from these communities have not only suffered job loss and reduced income, but have also faced an increased risk of exploitation and forced labour. Furthermore, social protection measures associated with the pandemic have the capacity to either address these impacts or worsen already existing inequalities. While there is some evidence of good practices in responding to the economic consequences of the pandemic, many of these measures have still failed to address the disproportionate impact on minorities and indigenous peoples.

At the end of 2019, on the eve of the pandemic, the global effort to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was already off track. This unprecedented crisis is reversing decades of progress on poverty reduction and is deepening inequalities that are leaving minorities and indigenous peoples yet further behind. It is therefore critical that governments, businesses and civil society organizations act in a manner that ensures minorities and indigenous peoples can enjoy their social and economic rights.


  • Recognize the complex social and economic barriers facing minorities and indigenous peoples in accessing secure, dignified work and welfare support: Policy-makers should ensure that any programmes or assistance are rolled out with a clear understanding of the specific challenges that different communities face. This means going beyond discrete or timebound responses that focus on a specific issue, to address instead the underlying discrimination they face.
  • Remove citizenship requirements, exclusive eligibility criteria and other administrative barriers that bar marginalized groups from accessing benefits: In responding to the unprecedented crisis of the pandemic, social protection measures should move away from these and other constraints to ensure universal access for all members of society. Otherwise there is a danger that welfare may be distributed unevenly, further reinforcing existing inequalities.
  • Ensure safe and non-exploitative working conditions for workers, particularly in informal or poorly paid sectors where labour rights are often non-existent or unenforced: This requires strengthening protections for workers not only through better laws and regulations, but also by enhancing mechanisms of accountability and remedies. Furthermore, during the pandemic, guarantees around PPE provision, social distancing and paid sick leave are crucial, especially for frontline and essential workers who are disproportionately from minorities and indigenous peoples.
  • Uphold workers’ rights in the face of abuse and coercion, ensuring that victims of exploitation and other human rights violations can easily access justice: As unethical and even illegal business practices have increased during the pandemic, enabled by the precarious situation of many workers facing destitution or deportation, it is more important than ever that governments and businesses ensure workers are paid the wages and benefits owed to them. Measures should be put in place to disincentivize wage theft, arbitrary dismissal and other negative practices.
  • Develop a clear evidence base on how ethnicity, religion and potential language barriers create barriers to accessing social welfare and other protections: One important element in this is the responsible collection and analysis of disaggregated data on financial assistance, unemployment and other indicators to better understand who is being left behind. This will help guide more targeted, inclusive labour protections and relief programmes that reach minority, indigenous and migrant communities, thus ensuring no one is left behind.

[1] This chapter draws on the findings of a rapid analysis project that collected and examined data from five regions: Asia and the Pacific, Europe, Africa, the Americas and the Middle East. This assessment was complemented by semi-structured interviews with over 30 non-governmental stakeholders. More information is available here.


Photo: Former Amazon employee, Christian Smalls, stands with fellow demonstrators during a protest outside of an Amazon warehouse as the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues in the Staten Island borough of New York U.S. Credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson.